For this article, I want to talk about functional training and try to find out whether there is any value to the average gym rat.
Bosu balls, Swiss balls, instability boards, TRX bands... functional training has been all the rage, supposedly working the core and making you bigger and stronger, all while simultaneously fixing the Greek budget mess. But what is it really? Functional training is supposed used to train you in a more "real life way" as opposed to traditional exercises, thereby increasing performance and fat loss.
Sorry, I call BS, there I said it.
Proper weight training is as functional as it gets. There is no need to need to reinvent the wheel. Grown up men benching 30 lbs dumbbells on a ball to strengthen their core? Please. The only time this type of training has its place is during an injury rehab, where the trainee needs to relearn how to balance and step-up/down. Otherwise, I think its at best a waste of time for athletes who's goal it is to build muscle and lose fat.
With that being said, I want to move on to a type of functional training that I believe is helpful for bodybuilding. As I ever so boldly stated in my book "101 Fitness Myths", the 5 best exercises you can do to build a Herculean physique are the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bent over row/pull up and the incline bench.
The problem is that 9 out of 10 people in any gym are not ready to perform these exercises properly. Why is that? There are several reasons: their technique is too bad, certain muscles too weak, too stiff, ego too big. Since nobody grows when injured, it would make sense to implement functional exercises to get better at the ones that matter.
Let's tackle the exercises one by one.
Functional Exercises to Improve Performance
Squat: Test yourself by performing an overhead squat with body weight alone. Are your knees buckling inwards? Your heels coming off the floor? How deep can you go? If you look more like a question mark than an athlete at the bottom of the OHS, its time to work on hamstring flexibility and glute activation.
Step ups, single leg presses and Bulgarian split squats will be your new best friends for 6-8 weeks. By then you can retest your self and proceed to barbell squats.
Deadlifts: It is often limited flexibility in the hamstrings and lack of lumbar extension that holds people back or causing injuries. In order to fix that, you will have to reduce your tightness. Dumbbell stiff legged deadlifts and cable pull throughs are good starting tools.
Bent Over Rows/Pull Ups
Bent over rows/pull ups: In the case of bent over rows, make sure your lumbar extension is on point. If you can not keep your back arched, it is time to go back to pull throughs and one arm rows. It is very helpful to have a friend tape you with his/her cell phone, so you can see how your spine shifts during the exercise.
Some people simply aren't strong enough to perform a pull up. Here you will need to start at the lat pull down machine. The key is to learn proper technique first, which means to bring the shoulder blades back first, before moving the elbows. The key is to involve the lats first, not the biceps. Once you can pull 80% of your body weight in sufficient form, you should be ready for a pull up.
Overhead press: The test here are wall slides. Stand with your back against the wall, bring your arms to shoulder height, while bending the elbows about 90 degrees. Now simply move your arms up and down along the body, you should feel the shoulder blades moving downward. If you can not perform wall slides properly, because your arms are coming forward, you are too stiff.
Working on your flexibility in regards to chest and front delts is critical, if you want to stay healthy. This is best done with the towel stretch. For this, you grab a towel with both hands and try to bring it over your head behind your body, while keeping the arms extended. At first, you might be struggling with this exercise, but over time you should be able to bring your hands closer together. Do 3 sets for 20 reps every night.
If you are having trouble moving the shoulder blades downwards, then your lower traps are underdeveloped. Start every workout with reverse shrugs and forego conventional shrugs for 6 weeks.
Incline Bench Press
Incline bench press: Here the limiting factors are also shoulder and chest tightness so the same principles as for the overhead press apply. In addition, you need to perform a sufficient number of pulls.
Most gym injuries concerning chest and shoulder work either include the bicepitial tendon and/or your rotator cuff. The reason the bicepital tendon gets inflamed is often limited flexibility in the chest and deltoid area. In any gym, you see the Quasimodo types who are hunched forward because of over development in the chest and lack of development in the back.
If you look like that, you are a very likely candidate for elbow and shoulder tendonitis as well as the title “World’s most unbalanced physique”. In order to compensate, train your back with a sufficient number of pull ups, rows, etc. A good rule of thumb is that for every set of pressing you should to two to three sets of pulling, on a weekly basis.
In addition, add the smaller pulls as well, such as:
- Face pulls, where you move a rope toward the bridge of your nose.
- J-pulls. These are sort of a cross over between stiff arm pull down and face pull. You start bringing the rope downward to your hips while keeping the arms locked, then opening the hands up and pulling to your body, from the side it looks like the letter J.
Lastly, test your shoulders out before the workout. Roll out a mat and grab a light barbell (30lbs), then perform pull overs where you touch the floor. 3 sets for 12 reps would be a good number. If you have trouble reaching the floor, you are too tight and should not go too heavy that day.
After that, perform 3 sets for 15 reps of floor presses while laying down. Basically you are just moving the barbell along the floor. If you cant do that, you'll need to work on your flexibility. Otherwise, there will the be trouble with your rotator cuff!
The rotator cuff deserves extra attention. Most people only realize it exist after they injure it. A good way to measure the strength of your cuff is to lay sideways on a bench or the floor and rotate a dumbbell upward against your hip. You should be able to move about 8% of the your incline bench weight, so if you bench 200 lbs, 16-20 lbs should be your range of strength.
If you are significantly weaker, you are on the fast track for an injury. The rotator cuff should be trained once a week with inwards and outwards rotations. It takes 5 minutes that will save you a lot of grievances down the road.
There you have it, my take on functional training. Till next time! - Maik